Alex Massie marked the eightieth anniversary of Bodyline with an excellent Spectator blog. Amongst other things, it brought home how distant it is. Bodyline exists now in those few flickering black and white images of Woodfall staggering away, and also in the layers of myth and memory that surround it. There's also the amusing, but still hovering apparition of the 1984 mini-series, with its catch-line of 'The Day England Declared War On Australia', and Hugo Weaving as a dastardly Jardine: "Harild... lig theory..." as his famous line used to go...
So one sentence in Alex's piece jumped out: 'Perhaps no more than (at most) 25% of the overs England delivered that
series were bowled to Bodyline fields.'
Having just written the post below this one on the changing nature of fear in batting and read some of the comments underneath it*, this seemed like a piece of Machiavellean genius worthy of Weaving's lofty fop. Knowing that something bad is coming, but not necessarily when, is a fear that's set in childhood. It's easy to imagine how it felt to suddenly see that legside ring tighten around you, with Larwood at the end of his run... Such a thing affects not just the psychology of facing it, but of waiting for it to happen, too.
What's easy to forget is how physically vulnerable a batsman was eight decades ago. No helmets, obviously, but more than that, no real thigh pads, no chest or arm guards, barely any gloves... Young pups might find it hard to comprehend, but a batsman might have had on their hands a thin covering of some kind of flannel, often with an open palm and with sausage padding stitched onto the fingers. They might even have worn spikes, a flimsy rubber mould intended to repel the worst of the impact (there's a picture of Jardine batting in a pair here).
As late as 1970, when Colin Cowdrey was flown in to face the onslaught of Lillee and Thomson at the age of 41, he opened his suitcase to reveal home-made foam-rubber padding he'd improvised after watching the Australian attack on the TV highlights. David Lloyd, who opened against the pair, half-joked about having a folded towel as a thigh-pad. Facing very fast bowling then was different to facing it now. Part of the reason that technique has been able to shift from 'classical' methods is down to the emancipation brought by better gear (or in the case of Bodyline, any gear).
In everything other than combat sports, physical danger is supposed to be a by-product of competition. We live in more cynical and knowing times than the cricketers of the Bodyline series, so it's easy to overlook the mental shock that being deliberately targeted would have provoked. Here was a stark choice: fend the ball towards our trap, or be hit.
Part of Bodyline's devastation was its newness, its intimations of the future.
* This blog is blessed to have so many good and regular commentators who know more than I do: Russ, John Halliwell, Tim Newman, Brian Carpenter, David Barry and many more. Thank you all.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
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